Dan Colen: Lover, Lover, Lover
September 7 – October 22, 2022
This fall, the artist Dan Colen will revisit and expand upon themes that have long preoccupied him in venues as diverse as Gagosian Gallery’s West 21st Street space, the Donald Judd Foundation’s Soho building, and United Nations Plaza. Gagosian will be displaying paintings from Colen’s “Mother” and “Woodworker” series, billboard-sized images that continue his exploration of ideas of home, the development of artists and artistic pursuits, and familiar cartoons as springboards to compositional questions and narratival complexity. At the Judd Foundation, Colen will speak as an artist who, like Judd, also manages land and a related nonprofit—Sky High Farm, the working farm at which his studio is also located. His appearances at the UN, taking the form of sculpture, performance, and a panel discussion concerning sustainability and food security, derive as well from his experiences with the farm. These pursuits may seem far from the objects that made Colen famous in the early 2000s—the bubblegum paintings or the kicked-over motorcycle lineup—but he has always been a medium-driven artist and one who works collaboratively with a team of assistants to realize his vision; the farm, especially, attempts to engage with a public on a geographic scale, one that has global ramifications. Dan Colen and I spoke in July 2022 in a wide-ranging conversation that was simultaneously prospective and retrospective, enthusiastic and elegiac. This interview is an edited and condensed version of our exchange.
Amanda Gluibizzi (Rail): This fall is going to be huge for you: you have a solo show at Gagosian; your farm—Sky High—is hosting a symposium at the Judd Foundation, where you’ll be one of the panelists; you have a sculpture going in at the UN Plaza, and a panel that Sky High farm is hosting at the UN. I am curious about what things are going to look like. I can understand how all of them are related, but how do you envision them working together aesthetically or visually?
Dan Colen: This show feels like a reemerging into the art world, because COVID has allowed me and many artists to be more immersed in our studios and a little less connected to the art industry. Maybe even more so for me because I've also been so involved in the farm’s work and growth, and my studio is at the farm, where I also live.
Ahead of planning the show and these events, these connections and relationships are things I've been thinking about continuously for the last three years. I'll say just to kind of frame the conversation, the farm is not my farm, because it's now become a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. It's an organization that I founded, and that I’m on the board of, and I work with every day, but it's much bigger than me and my own vision for things; the farm’s work moves forward and has impact only through intensive collaboration with the farm’s staff, board, partner orgs, and the community leaders and families we work with.
In 2011, I created Sky High Farm and ran it out of my studio, essentially as a studio project. But three years ago, it became clear to me that the work we were doing was urgent, it was unique, and was impactful. And for it to grow in a way that felt respectful of its own history, it became clear it should become this bigger thing. So now we make decisions with the board. And that’s been an evolution that has been satisfying for me, but also has informed my creative process in different ways, in the studio, out of the studio, simply as an artist.
We’ve been in conversation with a representative from the UN’s Environment Program for some time, but the plans for the presentation at this year’s Food Systems Summit have just come into place very recently. Along with the presentation on the farm’s work during the general assembly we’re discussing the possibility of a performance in the plaza but it’s a little too early in the process to be sure—my ideas are probably little different than what they’re accustomed to facilitating.
Jumping back to your question about a through line—having this convergent moment in September is something that I’ve been looking forward to, something that I've even considered how to contrive in the past, but it’s been clear to me that I couldn’t, because my studio practice and Sky High’s work are both focused and genuine initiatives—I mean that both move at their own natural paces, so to find these moments where there can be a real opportunity for a meaningful consideration of their relationship, would have been hard to design. I understood that and have been waiting for these types of opportunities to emerge.
Working with the farm has opened up what the idea of an audience means to me. I think as an artist, the more successful you get, the more limited your audience can feel. It’s easy to get distracted by a very small group of people—collectors, curators, galleries. I’ve enjoyed using the organization as an opportunity to connect with different collaborators, and a different audience, and to open up dialogues in new ways that the art world hadn’t enabled.
In terms of my efforts in the studio, oil painting has always been at the center of my practice, but it's rare that I have such a straightforward oil painting show, or that my studio focuses solely on painting, which it has for the last few years. From the beginning of my career, I've sought out other modes of making, other contexts and other mediums to work with beyond my painting practice, trying to wrap my head around what it means to make art today, what it means to be an artist today. I'm passionate about the history of oil painting, and committed to carving out my place in it. To understand the implications, to understand the way art can be experienced and can be impactful, I've always found it necessary to explore new ways of thinking and creating. I’ve stayed tethered to oil painting while exploring strategies for making and sharing which feel very far from those I use to paint. I think the farm has satisfied some sort of perspective I aspired for in that search, it obviously extends pretty far outside any traditional art context. Although it so squarely operates as a public health project, an agricultural project, a justice project, and an education project, my relationship to it is as an artist, and so, for me, it's about what it means to create, to share, and to provoke a dialogue with an audience, well, with other people.
Rail: It seems that, at least at the beginning, you were making slow painting. There was an aspect of control in the studio that you were exerting. I’m interested in the recognition that the farm is larger than you and your realization of the moment where you needed to not necessarily step back from it, but to be inclusive and to bring people into it.
Colen: In a very roundabout way the farm has allowed me to settle back into my painting practice. Ed Ruscha was an early influence of mine, and I remember reading about when he started making books, in a conversation with Dave Hickey, he said something like, “You know, I just wanted to take pills and not paint for a few years. So I had to figure out what to do.” I remember loving that, how intuitive that was for him. It's funny for me it was kind of the opposite, when I stopped taking “pills,” I just felt like focusing on this farm. Although drugs definitely didn’t make painting any easier for me. Anyways, I think as a painter, we can have such a specific, labored, and long relationship with art history, and for me it's so important to get this perspective from it, as a way to help me find my place in all of it. The farm is a much more articulated consideration of that searching. It’s interesting to recollect the trajectory and see how it fits within a bigger personal history of exploration: the farm’s work is very focused on issues around oppression, individuals and communities’ deprived of control and agency in their own lives—we’re committed to helping to create pathways towards sovereignty. As you mentioned the farm has opened me up to, in a sense, de-centering my vision, my intentions, my power and control, but that interest began much earlier in my career when I started on these non-traditional material paintings, working with bubblegum and flowers and a few other things. I thought I would work on them for a few months, but it turned into a decade-long process.
Performance was another step towards consciously opening up my process for external influence. I did my first performance at the Lyon Biennale in 2013. I think engaging with actors and dancers is a way for me to consider what I’m not in control of and how to align with and learn from these external forces. As a painter, I’ve always worked with assistants, so I’m very interested in that. I have a lot of respect for every mark that they put into it, as an important part of the painting, and I understand that their mark and my marks are different. This idea of where my control begins and ends, what I am in control of, what I can manipulate, and even what I can’t know or see in my work fuels me, and the farm and agriculture and food sovereignty each in their own way tie into the same idea, as these pursuits are very thought provoking when considering this trajectory in terms of narratives of who historically wields control, and how can I best participate in influencing the world I live in, where is my role in it. The farm offered me a way to articulate a lot of that into very clear work for myself.
I strive and struggle to accept that I'm a part of this thing, and in fact, the more I'm willing to accept how little influence I can have, the more opportunities there are for me to engage in all of the other things that are impacting the process, the moments I can control or can at least engage in. And that's what I want to stay close to: the people, the conscious and the unconscious, the natural and the supernatural things that are all shaping my creative process. I’m just one participant in a much bigger or infinite network of influence. For me that begins with something as fundamental as my materials, right? No matter how virtuosic I am in my relationship to something, there's still a limit to what I can do with any given material, and to play with that, I think, has always propelled me. These new paintings are very much led by the material. My relationship with oil painting has been combative. It’s all about trying to be like, “Am I more powerful? Or is the material more powerful? Will the material do the thing it wants to do? Or will it do the thing I want it to do?” The ways I navigate this tension have evolved over the past two decades.
Rail: How will your performance relate to the UN? Will it also reflect the architectural setting?
Colen: The performance is more directly connected to the human and I guess political themes that are relevant within the context of the UN. It’s very much about how people and bodies can be in harmony and/or conflict, how we can be destructive or constructive forces for each other. The sculptural aspect is something which will confront the architecture and the aesthetics in a very aggressive way, I think, and will hopefully challenge traditional aesthetic and material hierarchies, but also provoke considerations in regards to social hierarchies and norms. The site is charged visually and thematically.
Rail: It’s a weird place, and one that people can’t really get into anymore. So that’s a tricky thing—to conceptualize public art for a possibly very strange public.
Colen: I appreciate you bringing that up. As I mentioned, considerations of audience more and more fuel my efforts, and I think what the farm has allowed me to do is consider my audience more deliberately and also more expansively. The individuals, families, communities, and organizations the farm works closely with help to transform and propel our work. These relationships specifically have upended my relationship to the idea of an audience as an artist. Gagosian is an incredible international platform, it brings me to such a wide viewership. That opportunity has been amazing, but there are limitations to the bandwidth, and the farm has allowed me to develop new relationships which have fueled a different creative output. One of the functions of the farm is that it creates this wide access into the world of art, that spans all the way into the world of agriculture, into all these different worlds that it is committed to, and by taking on such an expansive project, it can create bridges between all those entry points. The UN Plaza is dealing with a very, very limited audience. It's not a traditional art audience, which excites me. That’s what I’m interested in—connecting with new audiences and sharing inside and outside of the art industry and institution. It's what the farm does: it's bringing art into unlikely places, using unlikely modes of presentation as a vehicle for art, as a kind of camouflage for art. And art as a camouflage for social engagement.
Rail: How does being very intimately involved in this ethical, sustainable farming practice inform your artistic practice?
Colen: It’s one of these things, objectively I know it has transformed my practice, but it’s very hard for me to pinpoint. It’s happened over ten years and continues to move me each day. So many different things inform the way I evolve. The farm is definitely one of them—a big one. I don't see myself as an environmentalist or a justice advocate, and yet I’m deeply committed to the farm’s mission, but the way in which I participate isn’t as anything other than as an artist. I feel like it allows me to think about process and impact in much, much more open ways, and I think it's allowed the organization to get traction and grow because it's bringing more people into the conversation. For me, it's not about thinking rigidly, or prescribing to any philosophies. I think if anything it’s encouraged more openness, more flexibility.
But, at the same time, the urgency is deafening, the lessons learned working with sustainable farmers, and as somebody who's face to face with the crisis in our food system, it’s very weird as an artist to process all this through the lens I once used to create, so I’m adapting. Maybe it’ll be clearer in a few years looking back. I think this goes back to the beginning of our conversation, right? As an artist, there's this kind of catch-22, because I think we're trained to think of ourselves as visionaries; almost all of the most influential artists historically and of our time have operated in this very unilateral way, just following this deep self-centered confidence, a commitment to personal vision. But, that's not real, right? It’s a myth we’re accustomed to, it’s never really been real. We're all influenced by so many things externally. I'm not operating in a silo as an artist. I don't want my work to be contained by a reliance on only my imagination. I want it to be super porous and flexible. I want what I make to be the byproduct of my experience as a human, as a person in this world. I want it to be shaped through feedback from the environment, the people I’m surrounded by and connected to.
But I can also say that understanding the amount of effort it takes to grow a head of lettuce definitely makes me reconsider what I'm doing in my studio, how I ration and deploy effort and how I value and quantify impact. It does shape my relationship to what you’re describing as these very slow and effortful paintings. The effort it takes to maintain a garden, move livestock and coordinate distribution of fresh food has informed my process.
Rail: Let's go to the Gagosian show that you have coming up. You’re exhibiting new works from the “Mother” series and from a “Woodworker” series. I wasn’t familiar with the latter; what can you tell us about those?
Colen: The “Mother” paintings I’ve been working on for ten years; they’ve recently crystallized into a cohesive group of paintings, but there was a decade of wandering towards that. This is the first time they’ll be shown by themselves as a body of work—they’re all panoramic, about thirteen feet wide by five feet tall. They’ve been about many things, but to pick back up on a theme which continues to surface in this conversation—considerations of influence are central… thinking of mothers, our primary caregivers, and of course one of our biggest influences. Ideas of home as analogous with concepts of mother—home of course being another defining force—and the fraught relationships so many of us have with our homes and homelands. I’ve made the paintings literally through quotations of brush marks from art history. I use images from Disney only as a scaffold, I rely on the images to define things like composition and color. But those aren’t my ultimate concern. The image is a template to work on top of, so I’m quoting a lot of landscape painting, but other genres as well, focusing on details like the bark of a tree. How can paint be used to suggest or interpret that bark? How can the paint be used to suggest grass or cobblestone? How has paint been used by other painters? How many ways has it been used to do these simple tasks? How can paint translate wood grain, the veins of a leaf, the polish on mahogany? I’m searching through a wide swath of art history and creating a large index of paintings I’ve referenced.
These paintings are very deliberate in how they're made. I’m seeing the places where I can maintain control, and I’m investing in those moments. But I would say the paint is much more palpable as a defining force than in past paintings. Over time, it's become harder for me to see painting as image. For me, they are objects, paint is a material, and the material defines the thing. I’m interested in images but only to use as a scaffolding to help me better understand the material’s potential or possibilities. I was attracted to photorealism’s ways of drawing in the viewer through awe of virtuosity, the kind of trick that it plays on reality, which I also love. Illusionism and trompe l’oeil are genres I’ve always been interested in, but I was a little bit concerned with the way the photorealist paintings leveled my viewers’ experience, in a way. Although I haven’t exhibited photorealist paintings in decades, much of my relationship to paint is informed by these early works. I still think about it a lot and have been playing with some new ideas in the studio.
The “Mother” paintings are more of a poetical or spatial consideration of influence, mother as a place, home, a space’s limitations—ideas of power and domination are at the forefront. They’re all set between the family home and a prison cell. The “Woodworker” paintings are a more direct consideration of influence. They’re all set in the artist’s studio. Each painting is a different view or moment of time of Geppetto’s worktable, where he built Pinocchio. Some of the paintings are of the artist’s tools and research materials, like books, and some of them depict the artist’s output, in this case music boxes and instruments. The woodcarver’s chisel repeats in several canvases. My father is a woodworker. He’d work on his sculptures on the weekends in our driveway. Thinking back to this and painting those memories allows me to overlap and map feelings I have around art history, ancestral influence, and the resonance of homelands. As a child, I watched my father carve wood, but what I was actually watching was somebody trying to understand what an artist was. He didn’t grow up with art, he wasn’t surrounded by culture or art. He was introduced to it as an adult. His first sculpture was a small carving of my mother pregnant with me. There’s a cliche at work here; cliche is a device I’ve always been attracted to, which is partly why Disney has been such a fertile backdrop for me. The narrative I’m painting is deeply personal yet also wildly universal. The story is of artists bringing inanimate objects to life, and I also love thinking of these artworks going out into the world and shaping their own destiny. Experience and time transform the artworks into new things. Artworks have lives of their own, they move beyond their creator’s control, not only in the process of their making and physical degradation, but also in the way that they’re experienced, archived, and canonized. Nevertheless, ideas of sanctity and permanence are constantly reinforced.
Rail: It’s interesting to me that you’re talking about the way that artists must relinquish control over the ways that your works are received, because even as you were talking about the “Woodworker” paintings, I was coming up with multiple readings of them. Perhaps the table is shifting because we're looking at it from different points of view: we're looking at it from your father's point of view; from Geppetto’s; from your point of view as a child versus your point of view as an adult making this painting; from Pinocchio’s point of view. But then I was also thinking about Cézanne, and painterly quotation, and the way that the table doesn’t necessarily move but the painter moves, and the table shifts accordingly. This idea of painterly quotation is something important to your work but also something that perhaps people may not see, especially if they’re not familiar with the works that you’re referring to.
Colen: I’m glad you’re bringing this up. One of the challenges working on a body of work for this long is that my relationship to the works constantly evolves. I always hope to present these works in a way that unlocks the paintings’ many layers of material, but also intention and meaning, so the audience can experience them in their temporal entirety.
Rail: One of the things you said in your interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist was about skateboarding: you walk in the city, and you want to give an object another function, which I love. Do you think that you can see painterly quotation almost in the same way, where you’re seeing this mark, and now you’re going to make it into a new mark because you’re developing it in a new way?
Colen: It’s funny because earlier on in our conversation, I think I said something about how having an original idea is essentially impossible. I’m making these paintings with a team in a coordinated and deliberate manner: different people’s marks overlap and only together move us towards resolution. All these marks are quotations of other marks, yet each mark is still utterly new. That's very important for me. It’s why I still make paintings. Even if it’s a quotation of another mark, it's still something that has never ever been made, seen, or considered before.
Rail: You mentioned that, amongst others, you're looking at the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. That makes perfect sense to me with the meticulousness of their work and outré nature of their paintings. Those are weird paintings. Are you looking at hyper-naturalistic painterly marks when you’re doing this? Or are you willing to go into something like a really late Monet?
Colen: It’s been going on for ten years. I would say there were months, maybe years where I was super-focused on a single painter like Robert Bechtle or Chardin. I would also look at movements as a whole, Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionism were both important. Recently, it became necessary to look at more expressive painting movements like Gutai, Ab Ex, even some German Expressionism. I’m very interested in a brush mark’s potential to simultaneously be utterly abstract and hyper-descriptive of a very specific thing—not a leaf, but a Sycamore maple leaf. Paint has the potential to represent all that simultaneously. The project began with my fascination with Hudson River School Artists, and led to Courbet to Ingres to Spitzweg and so on. Monet of course looms large for me.
Rail: With these two series, it seems like the “Mother” paintings are almost more abstract in terms of what they're presenting, whereas the “Woodworker” paintings have a certain specificity and activity to them, where we know what we’re seeing. I’m curious about the way that the paintings, because of the names of the series, are being gendered. Do you consider them gendered as individual paintings?
Colen: Well, I don’t think of woodworkers as necessarily gendered, but of course in this case I’m thinking about my father.
Rail: And Geppetto, who was also a man.
Colen: True. The “Mother” paintings aren't exclusively about my mother. They’re more about ideas of home and land. But I'm following you. It’s funny to unpack an artist’s intentions within the process of realizing a project. The gender isn’t at the front of my mind, but it’s definitely there as a concept to be considered.
Rail: Kind of more like “Mother Earth,” as opposed to a specific mother?
Colen: Yeah, I definitely think of them as being about something bigger than an individual. Mother as a touch point between phases of life. I’m thinking about the experiences someone has as they move from the womb towards a relationship where they themselves are bringing new life into the world. I conceived of these soon after a close friend had died. After losing several friends in quick succession, his death really shook me. We were extremely close, but he left a baby girl behind, and that changed me more than any loss. I’m thinking of Mother as place, which can conjure so many different experiences—it can be our origin, our destination, or even our final resting place. Home can be traumatic for some and comforting or soothing for others. In terms of parental influence, I think that it's analogous. So many children have a relationship to their parents or their homes that conjures this full spectrum. Home can be a symbol of our aspirations. Life is inevitably about moving from one home to another, searching for comfort and protection, or running away from trauma and bondage. On the other hand the “Woodworker” paintings are about what it means to make something, to be a parent, to be a maker, an artist, a caretaker. I’m less concerned with gender. I think the “Mother” paintings prioritize the perspective of the created or the malleable, you know, and the “Woodworker” paintings focus more on the perspective of the creator. I’m interested in how infinite and/or limiting both perspectives can be.
To construct, to move forward, to make progress is not always additive or positive, and deterioration, destruction, and disappearance are not necessarily negative. That’s an important question for me: How do we make progress?
Rail: Do you consider your visual references as a sort of home, or a home base?
Colen: The “Candle” paintings are essentially the origin point for all these works. In 2003 I had a book of Disney images in my studio for an unrelated project, and flipping through the book one day I was drawn to an image of an extinguished candle which still somehow illuminates the room. It took me a while before I realized that what I was looking at was Geppetto’s worktable, and that that setting—a woodworker’s worktable—is important to me and has been an important part of the way I've come to be who I am. But again, these paintings also allow me to explore more universal themes. They are self portraits, portraits of my parents and ancestors, but also pictures of America. Disney has allowed me to explore my own fraught relationships with homeland, a fascination which I think first took hold of me as a child during a brief sojourn in Israel.
Rail: One of the things that the Gagosian press release suggests is that these are going to close out the series. How do you know that you've reached the end of it?
Colen: I think I let that slip. Everything I do tries to escape any commitment to total resolution. It’s been central to my practice. Many of my paintings, whether they're on a wall or in a storage unit, are changing. I think I spend more and more time thinking about performance because it accepts and embraces its ephemerality. The farm may be my ultimate overture to this open endedness. But given the pathway towards the “Woodworker” paintings, I can’t help but feel like they’ve completed a long loop.
Almost twenty years ago I started painting an image, which at the time felt a little random or maybe enigmatic. In the time that passed I’ve started seeing it as a portrait of my father. Before the show is down I’ll be a father myself, which is a crazy coincidence considering this series has been in the works for so long. We’ve also finally refined the process in the studio. I understand how to make these paintings, we’ve managed to find harmony between the image and the material. Generally, I find that to be a good point to move away from something. Focusing on these paintings has been clarifying. COVID allowed me to be in my studio every day and to track the progress of these paintings in a way I just couldn't do when I was traveling more and moving between multiple studios. The Disney paintings were born out of a reluctancy to paint. I think the farm is just so out there, it’s settled something in me. Maybe it’s relieved some of that anxiety. And, you know, there are other paintings I want to make. There are paintings I’ve been thinking about for six or seven years, probably longer. Ideas come much faster than I’m able to paint them. I have to continually ask myself: How do I contain my ideas as I develop them and hold on to inspiration for both the things that I'm working on at length and also these things that I can't work on at all?